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Feature Interview #6: SCHUBMEHL
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Eve Anthony Hanninen,
editor of
The Centrifugal Eye

asks Poet Wanda Schubmehl
about the importance of communication, collaboration, patterns and process,
and what roles these concepts play out
in her life and writing,
and then digs in for a little perspective
on Wanda's take on other poets, as well.

Wanda is the
Featured Poet
for Spring 2007.


On Doty & Oliver

"Wanda Schubmehl"
Artwork by E. A. Hanninen, inspired by Photo taken by Bill Schubmehl - 2007

EAH: Last quarter, The Centrifugal Eye's Winter issue was built around collaborative visions between editor, writers and readers. You've alluded to "the necessity of communication and collaborations," and I'm naturally curious about your relationship with such concert— how do these needs play out in your writing life?

WS: My writing life is a collage of periods of intense, quiet listening to interior conversations, and of sharing the creative process with others. I work best when those two processes are in balance. If I have too many meetings or projects going on, and not enough solitude, I don't write much; if I have too little creative stimulation, I tend to freeze up, or go stale.

There are times when I think I do these collaborations for purely selfish reasons, that I like them because they prod me out of my comfort zone and make me take creative risks. I console myself with the thought that maybe others will get some benefit from working with me!

Like most writers I know, I walk around having conversations in my head with radio news readers, birds on the birdfeeder, the Hale-Bopp comet, whatever poet Garrison Keillor features on his Writers Almanac (It's unlikely for a poet to have too little creative stimulation!). A poet is in communication all the time, whether it's Mary Oliver communing with the natural world, or Li-Young Lee voicing the trauma of his family. For me, it's invigorating to walk in someone else's mental landscape, where I can test out what I think I hear and come close to seeing things through someone else's eyes.

EAH: Examples of recent collaborations?

WS: I have a lot of fun doing collaborative projects - I've created projects I call Poetry Chains, where, for example, I'll send a poem to Poet B; Poet B will write a poem in response to mine, and send only his/her poem to Poet C, etc., down the chain. It's fascinating to see what threads run through the whole chain, as if the chain develops a consciousness and begins to direct the poets' thinking! I'm coordinating a project now which has four chains of five poets each.

I'm working with a local artist in a project begun by Rochester Art Club, whose president decided he wanted some of his artists to work with poets. The artist I'm paired with, Richard Harvey, and I are compatible in process and outlook, and I've written several poems about the war and the state of the world in response to some of his art.

EAH: In what ways do you perceive people's needs for discussion and exchange, as well as your own, outside of writing?

WS: I think we're all amateurs at communication. It's difficult! I think many of the ills of the world occur out of a paucity of mutual understanding. So often, if you get two people on different "sides" of some issue together, and talking, they will find far more points of commonality than of difference. It's one thing to hold an opinion of a group of people, and quite another to get to know an individual member of that group. It's harder to hold stereotyped (and therefore one-dimensional) beliefs about someone if you get to know the person in all of his or her complexity.

EAH: What job does poetry serve in communication?

WS: I value poetry partly for its ability to sneak past a listener's surface thoughts almost into the subconscious. Poetry's rhythm and characteristics can tap emotion, memory, curiosity, and energy. Poetry can take you for a ride but deposit you in a place very different from the destination you expected. That's why it can be subversive; it's not one-dimensional or quickly dismissed.

EAH: Which topics do you like to explore?

WS: I tend to be a creature of obsession - current obsessions include our foreign policy and my despair at the state of the world; environmental destruction and the oneness of all things; the too-rapid passage of time; patterns in nature - ivy growing on a wall, tree bark, minerals and deposits in stone; frost patterns on the windows, etc. I have a digital camera I'm trying to learn to use, and I frustrate people I hike with, because I'm so often standing still trying to get a photograph of a lichen pattern on stone, or the eyes on birch trees.

In my poetry, I'm usually writing about loss and/or transformation. Most recently, I've been writing poems about war and social problems. In the project with the artist, I've found a way in to the challenge of writing poetic work about gritty subjects.

EAH: "Patterns in nature" often produce myriad details for the observer. Do you try to inject the majority of your poems with such patterns, or is your compositional process less intentional?

WS: I rarely, if ever, write a formal poem, and I rarely set out to deliberately create a pattern. However, I have a strong sense of rhythm (so much so that I have to guard against being sing-song), and there is often pattern in the way I use internal or near-rhyme. Some of my poems are written largely by following the rhyme I discover as I write the work. Usually the poems I write which satisfy me most are those written when listening to where the poems want to go, rather than consciously directing the process.

Another pattern for me, perhaps, is my fondness for writing poems in which I start with one image or idea and then bring in another, and weave them back and forth throughout the poem until they are so connected that it's hard to go back and separate them. But I think my love of patterns is more "visual" than "verbal." There's something pleasing to me about natural geometry. Although when I think about it, the same impulse shows up in my poetry more than I realize – when I use spaces rather than punctuation, in choosing line breaks, and evident in my need to feel that the poem's ending has been "earned" by the rest of the poem. And I often write poems with multiple parts, or a series of poems exploring different aspects of something, which is akin to looking at an object in nature from different angles and noticing how it appears different.

EAH: Do you have a favorite poem (or two) which showcases your fascination for patterns?

WS: The poem Below the Summit was written, in part, about my attempt to reach the summit of the highest mountain in New York State, and being distracted by all the beautiful trees and colors of peeling birch bark along the way. And the "weaving" process can be seen in the poem No Answer, where I remembered, years ago, seeing boys in a neighbor's yard accosting a cut-down tree trunk. As I started to write about that, I found myself writing about war. I thought the parallels were uncanny.

No Answer

Four small boys brandish
their tree-limb swords,
darting around the remains
of a century-old oak
felled in my neighbor's yard
by someone imagining lawn
unencumbered by acorns
or little oak sprouts.

In the boys' eyes,
the tree is a monstrous beast
slain at last by their own
brave deeds.
They kill it again and again,
stabbing their swords
into the exposed root-maze,
taunting the fallen trunk.

Later, on the news, I see
the same celebratory dancing,
children running in to kick
a dead fatigue-clad soldier,
as if they have won the battle.
They stand with one foot
on his throat. Their parents
hand out sweets.

My neighbor has bought a new tree,
a maple, to plant in the crater
where the oak once stood.
I read in the news
that another division of National Guard
leaves today for Baghdad.

EAH: I'm intrigued that many poets I meet are/were also employed in social work fields, as you are. Did your interest in writing poetry develop due to your observations about human behaviors and the "human condition," and the need to communicate about them?

WS: I think it's more that both of these aspects of me rise from the same place – focus, a need to understand, fascination with the endless varieties of thought and emotion, a value on connection. In a way, it's sort of the same thing being expressed in two different forms.

EAH: I often conceive of writers as recorders of scene and behavior (not necessarily narratively), as well as artists of language. Do you share this view?

WS: I do think maybe fiction writers are more clearly recorders of scene and behavior; poets sometimes do this, too, but not all poems record scene and behavior - some are the imprint of emotion, or a distillation of a sensory experience.

EAH: This seems like a good time to ask which poets have influenced you— in what ways?

WS: I'm not academically schooled in poetry (I don't have an MFA, for example) . . . I've taken classes with local poets through our literary center, and I've been a member of a poetry workshop group for ten years, but I've never studied poetry formally. I've been influenced by national poets like Mary Oliver, from whom I have learned to "pay attention;" Ted Kooser, who seems to urge me to write in ordinary language, about ordinary subjects; Mark Doty, who writes infinite poetry within finite forms; Billy Collins - I thought I had discovered Billy Collins, as I became a fan of his humor and depth before he was named the Poet Laureate; and very greatly influenced by Li-Young Lee, who showed me that it's OK to write poetry in which I find my way.

Last fall I attended a conference called Resilience of the Human Spirit, which brought together 13 international poets who had experienced torture, imprisonment, exile, etc.. This was probably the most significant catalyst for my work – it deepened my respect for the power of poetry and continues to push me toward courage in writing. Some of these poets had been imprisoned for speaking out through poetry; some write in order to keep memory of injustice alive, or memories of people alive. I asked myself under what conditions I would continue to write poetry if I knew, for example, that when I left my house I would be put in prison for years because of what I had written. It's a question I'm still trying to answer.

I've also been influenced by some amazing local poets (Karla Merrifield among them!); Rochester is home to an astonishing number of excellent poets.

And I've taken classes at our literary center, Writers and Books; much of what I am as a poet, now, I owe to teachers there, like M.J. Iuppa, Thom Ward, and James Longenbach.

EAH: Tell me about the Genesee Readers Series.

WS: The Genesee Readers Series brings together two authors (poetry, fiction, memoir . . .) who each get half an hour to read their work. I was asked to take on the curatorship of this Series last summer. The Series has been running in Rochester, NY for, I think, 18 years! Several years ago, I was invited by the previous curator to be a featured reader, and it was so validating for me to be invited. Now I get to be the person offering authors an opportunity to read their work! It's the joy of giving back; so much has been given to me that it's really a treat to be on the other side of things.

And it's also been satisfying to hear so many people read. I know a lot of poets in this community, but I'm less familiar with fiction and memoir writers. Now I'm getting to know more people in that community. And there's my pleasure in patterns, I guess, in choosing who will read on the same evening, trying to decide which two people's work will complement each other, or show off each other's work because they are so different.
I'm just now beginning to get published, so that's a new happiness for me. I've been writing seriously for about fifteen years, and, except for one brief burst of submissions several years ago, I haven't submitted any work until recently.

EAH: Your time has come! I've also learned you played a small part in the founding of the RochesterInk Poetry Festival. How did this come about?

WS: I've always wanted to go to the Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, NJ and immerse myself in the luxury of a bounty of poets! But I've never gone – always questions of time and cost. So I thought it would be nice if I could have a part in bringing a mini-festival to Rochester.

I'm now working with a dedicated group of people who are planning our third consecutive Festival. We've become interested in featuring "fusions" of poetry with other arts – dance, music, photography, etc. – and this year are inviting some of our cultural institutions to develop programs featuring poetry. When we started, I had no idea how much work it is to pull together something like this! When it actually comes together, there's amazement at what a little group of people can do if they really want to.

EAH: Did you hear Margaret Atwood read when she was in Rochester in March?

WS: I didn't, unfortunately, although I heard from others she was marvelous, and very generous with her time. Mary Oliver came to a local college as part of National Poetry Month (April), and I got to hear her. I've loved Mary Oliver's poetry for many years, but have never been to one of her readings. I decided, while sitting in the audience listening, that one of my definitions of poet is "someone who is so porous that light shines through." Mary Oliver is definitely one of those people – and her poetry, even when it speaks of heartbreaking loss, concentrates that light and offers it to the listener or reader. I think poetry is an antidote to despair and violence, even when it confronts the darkest of things we do to each other; it's always a plea to connect with someone, to communicate, to commune.

EAH: What are some of your other activities? Do any of these appear in your writing?

WS: I'm trying to develop some skill in digital photography. I used to make handmade paper, and I really loved doing that, but it takes a lot of time . . . time is at a premium, and writing is the art of first priority for me. I recently wrote a couple of short plays, which was fun. I'm an avid reader (of course). I like hiking. I'm an occasional runner. I went abroad for the first time at the age of 53, and I love traveling as much as I always thought I would.

That first trip was to France. Our younger daughter was studying for a year in Grenoble; we spent a few days there, and then a few days in Paris. I was concerned that I had built up France in my mind so much that it couldn't possibly live up to my expectations, but I had no reason to worry! I decided there's a special thrill to being in one's 50's before going abroad – because of all those years wishing for it, imagining it – and then to be there looking at the facade of Notre Dame, and getting a whole new appreciation for the Impressionists who painted it over and over . . . it was wonderful.

And last year, we went to Beijing to visit our older daughter; that was also almost beyond belief. There is such an energy in China, such a strange blend of ultra-modern and ancient. I couldn't get over seeing bottled water deliveries being done by bicycle, ten or so big bottles on the back of a bike! I think there really is something different about being in a place which has such a long human history. The land felt alive, some kind of ancient coiled beast.

I thought I'd come back from both of these trips with lots of poems, but I think I've only written one poem I like from either. I don't know why. Maybe the experiences have to sink in farther before I'm really ready to write about them.

EAH: I've heard similar comments from writers, such as poet Jon Ballard, that places, experiences, need to be gestated – sometimes for long periods, years even – before they can write about them. I find this is true for me, as well, but mainly it's certain places I have trouble internalizing for awhile, rather than events. Do you suspect that some experiences astound our abilities (and emotions?) to narrow focus enough to be able to recreate satisfying impressions?

WS: Oh, yes, Eve, thank you! That makes a lot of sense to me. It's hard for me to pick out a moment or one experience because of the intensity and complexity of the "thing as a whole;" it takes time for me to distinguish one shiny pebble from the great mass of shiny pebbles!

EAH: Speaking of a shiny pebble amidst a great mass of them— you have a poem in Karla Merrifield's and Roger Weir's The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America anthology. How did you get involved in that project?

WS: At the time I had just met Karla (although we are good friends now!). She sent around a notice about the project, and I decided to write something to submit. I thought I might have a better chance of my poem being accepted if I wrote about an undistinguished species, so I chose the rock-gnome lichen, partly because I like lichens in general, and partly, I confess, because the name was so charming! It's an honor to have my poem included in the company of so many strong, heartbreaking, angry, beautiful poems.

The times I've been part of a public reading of these poems, I realized all over again how powerful poetry can be to evoke understanding and connection.

When Karla told me the title she'd chosen for the anthology, I knew immediately that I had to write another poem, one using that title, and she generously gave me permission to use it. The poem includes my "fascination with pattern," now that I think about it, in its cadence, repetition, and demand that we do our best to speak up even if we think it's hopeless. Well, I'm not sure that last thing has anything to do with pattern . . .

The Dire Elegies
for Karla Merrifield

The dire elegies are the songs you sing
when it's far north winter
in your soul and there's no one but you
to hear the pack ice groaning.
Everything is ice,
but when you close your eyes,
the whole remembered world wells up
and must be sung,
each blade of grass
sea star
The dead and vanished
still have things to say, and you
must say them, even when your heart
is breaking. Dread and terror
have their fingers on your throat,
but you trust the power of language
when it tells the awful truth,
and you sing until your last breath
blooms like a scarlet blossom risking everything
to open.

EAH: I find plenty of natural patterns evoked in your imagery: "daisy, worm, sea star, lichen . . ." And of human reaction to environment. These are aspects I like about your writing, why you're on my recommended reading list.

So, who are you reading right now? Anyone to recommend to The Centrifugal Eye's readers?

WS: I enjoyed Ted Kooser's Poetry Repair Manual. I just spent some time with a huge folio book of photographs of the recovery/cleanup effort of the World Trade Towers, called Aftermath, by Joel Meyerowitz. Today I was reading On Conesus, a full-length collection of poems by John Roche, who read in the Genesee Readers Series April 10. And I'm reading Mary Oliver's Blue Iris and Thirst.

As for recommendations, where do I start?

Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations With Li-Young Lee
and Book of My Nights by Li-Young Lee. Reading anything by Lee makes me want to go write a poem. There's something about the compressed pain in his writing, and his particular voice, that slices through me straight to the core, and stirs things up.

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner. Paul Celan lived through the Holocaust, and suffered the loss of both parents; his poetry is difficult, but well worth the effort. I think this biography helps make Celan accessible.

You & Yours by Naomi Shihab Nye. Powerful poems about war and humanity.

The Memory Room by Mary Rakow (a novel - almost like a novel-length poem - about the healing power of poetry and the arts, the devastation of familial abuse, and transformation through relationship). I love this book, and wish more people would read it!

The Auschwitz Album, a Book based Upon an Album Discovered by a Concentration Camp Survivor, Lili Meier, text by Peter Hellman. Someone photographed scores of the doomed as they arrived at Auschwitz, were separated, and then sent into the ovens, children, old people, families. This book puts the horror right in front of me, so that I can't ignore it.

Still Life With Oysters and Lemons and Source by Mark Doty. Hearing Mark read the title poem of Source during our first poetry festival was the inspiration for "Poem For Mark Doty." He's another poet full of light.

And, of course, The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America, edited by Karla Linn Merrifield and Roger M. Weir.

EAH: Any parting advice to up-and-coming poets hoping to get published?

WS: Take the opportunity to read your poetry to an audience. You will get a sense of what is working and what isn't. Join a critique group of people you trust, and pay attention to what they say. Think about the feedback you get, use what you decide is valid, and ignore the rest. Believe in the power of poetry. Try to make every poem you write worth the time you spent writing it.

EAH: Satisfy my curiosity by answering a last odd question – your email uses the name Marlene. Why is that?

WS: My given name is Wanda Marlene, actually (I've never been called Marlene, though, and I think of myself as an archetypal Wanda. I can't imagine having any other name). Several years ago, my husband and daughters and I all shared one email address. When one of our daughters was home and one was away at school, we at home tried to plan a birthday surprise for the daughter who was away. I created a yahoo account using "Wanda" for that purpose. After that project was over, I forgot about the account.

Some years later, when I realized my poetry-related emails were swamping the shared email address, I resurrected the old "Wanda" address, but couldn't remember the password, and none of the clues they gave me seemed to trigger the right response. I was in a rush, so I decided to come up with another address that I could remember (my memory being a sort of joke among my family!), and I figured I couldn't forget my middle name . . . unfortunately, I never once thought about how utterly confusing it would be. Even people who know me well as Wanda have been mystified by who this "Marlene" person is. Someone thought she must be my daughter!

But I have my email address out there in so many places now that I can't even imagine trying to change it. So I've stayed with marleneschubmehl, and have just tried to remember to explain to everybody new who "marleneschubmehl" really is (Not in the existential sense . . .).

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